About the Book
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is a Pulitzer Prize winning book that examines the consequences of current U.S. housing policies and demonstrates how these laws created an eviction epidemic that traps low income people in poverty. The research is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin over the course of a year between 2007 and 2008. Although it’s non-fiction, it reads like a novel because Desmond paints an intimate portrait of both the Landlord and the Tenant experience. This is an engrossing and enlightening read that makes the invisible forces that can ensnare you in poverty, visible.
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- What is Sociology?
- Interview with Matthew Desmond
- Rents Are Out Of Reach For Most Americans Earning Minimum Wage, A Study Says
- Mobile Home Parked
- Eviction Lab
- Who owns rental property?
- Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C.
- The Fair Housing Five & the Haunted House
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Here is a reflection on reading from Toni Morrison:
"Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind."
Welcome to the WE SHOULD ALL BE BOOKWORMS podcast. I’m your host, Mykella, a budding novelist and a bonafide bookworm. In this episode I will introduce you to Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.
Evicted is a Pulitzer Prize winning book that examines the consequences of current U.S. housing policies and demonstrates how these laws created an eviction epidemic that traps low-income people in poverty. The research is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin over the course of a year between 2007 and 2008. Although it’s non-fiction, it reads like a novel because Desmond paints an intimate portrait of both the Landlord and the Tenant experience. This is an engrossing and enlightening read that makes the invisible forces that can ensnare you in poverty, visible.
So join me today as we preview this story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just finished reading your 33rd book so far this year, or you can’t even remember the last time you read a book — this podcast is for you. In fact, if we can change the world one book at a time, then we should all be bookworms.
If you work full-time for minimum wage anywhere in the United States, you can’t afford to rent an average 2 bedroom apartment. This is according to a July 2021 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
So how much do you have to make as a full-time 40-hour-a-week worker to afford the average 2 bedroom in our country? Since affordability is defined as spending no more than 30% of your gross income on rent, then you need to make $24.90 per hour or $51,792 per year to afford the $1295 monthly rent of the average 2 bedroom in the U.S..
There’s a push to lift the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour, but even if that happens, if you’re in a situation where you have to pay for housing on your own - such as a single parent - that’s still not enough because housing is just too expensive.
There is a housing affordability crisis in the United States, it’s been stewing for a long time. And this recent news shows it’s getting worse.
We look at eviction as an individual problem affecting individual people who failed. If you fall behind on your rent, you get evicted. You broke your contract with the landlord. Evicting you is fair. That’s how most of us think, right?
But the reality is that eviction is rarely an isolated incident unique to an individual who doesn’t know how to budget.
Matthew Desmond sheds light on this reality. His book, Evicted, shows us there’s an epidemic of evictions and that it’s a structural problem that is baked into our system.
It’s not an individual’s fault that they are evicted when they have to pay 80% of their income in rent for the cheapest apartments available in their market. For that individual, eviction is inevitable. And that’s not fair. Especially in a country that prides itself on the idea of equal opportunity.
The book Evicted shows how eviction itself is one of the causes of poverty in America and highlights the fact that the epidemic of eviction and lack of affordable housing is a systemic problem, it’s a collective problem, and we are all contributing to it and accountable for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author of Evicted is Matthew Desmond, and he is a sociologist and a professor of sociology at Princeton University.
But, wait a minute, what is a sociologist? What is sociology?
According to the American Sociological Association, “Sociology is the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.”
This means a sociologist spends their time helping the rest of us:
- understand why people do what they do
- they help make social ills like racism, sexism, and income inequality visible on paper through data so that we can hold each other accountable
- they help us figure out how to be accountable by guiding our solutions to these problems
- And because sociologists analyze society in a systematic way, they help us make sure our solutions are based on empirical evidence. Often societal issues like racism, sexism, and the wealth gap are surrounded by a fiery, emotional debate. Sociology brings neutrality by taking these issue and translating them to data on spreadsheets and graphs and maps so that we can draw fact-based conclusions.
For example, with the support of the Gates, JPB, and Ford Foundations, as well as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, after writing this book (and winning the pulitzer prize for it), Matthew Desmond founded the Eviction Lab in 2017, which is a website that makes nationwide eviction data publicly available and accessible. You can look at evictions over time, map evictions in your area, compare the eviction rates of different neighborhoods, cities, or states, and generate custom reports that give you a better picture of the eviction epidemic. That’s all available to you online for free at evictionlab.com.
And that’s an example of how the discipline of sociology takes a complicated human social condition and translates it into data points that can be mapped and manipulated and studied and acted upon to create change.
In an 2016 interview with the Atlantic, Desmond said that he initially set out to write this book because he wanted to study poverty not as a function of a place or a type of people, but as a function of relationships - as in the relationship between landlord and tenant.
But he realized that the topic of eviction was much, much bigger than a unique relationship dynamic. “I realized” he said, “not only that had we overlooked this very central aspect of poverty, but eviction was coursing through the American city and acting as a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” In other words, I’m not evicted because I’m poor, but I’m poor because I was evicted.
If sociology proves that eviction is a cause of poverty, then what does that mean for society? When you don’t pay your rent or your mortgage - you get evicted right? The tenant owes the landlord. The landlord owes the bank. The bank owes their investors. Somebody’s gotta pay.
But… what if there’s another way?
I’m finding this book hard to summarize because there is so much great material and this topic is incredibly multi-faceted. I’m not sure where to begin talking about it. But I think because Desmond conceived of this topic as an examination of poverty and profit through the lens of relationships - that’s how I’ll summarize this book. I’ll review the tenant side and then the landlord side.
First, the tenant side: Desmond lived in a rooming house on Milwaukee’s North Side for 10 months where the residents are almost all black. The stories he collected are primarily from black women who are single or single mothers, though there’s one single father he follows too. They are mostly unemployed or underemployed, relying on government assistance and food stamps to make ends meet. It’s hard to find a job because they keep getting evicted. Living in a shelter and constantly searching for housing makes it difficult to search for work too. Because they come from broken homes and are always on the move, their children have behavioral problems and their problem behaviors don’t make finding or keeping housing any easier.
Desmond also lived in a trailer park for 5 months, and the park’s white tenants face many similar complications. One of them has the added issue of being a drug addict. Another has 5 kids, a situation that makes it nearly impossible to find housing that doesn’t require splitting up the family because Landlords don’t want to rent a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment to someone with 5 kids and the family can’t afford the places with 3 or more bedrooms which are the places they really want.
Oh- and all of them- the black and white tenants- have recent evictions on their record. This alone shuts the door on many rental options as most landlords refuse to even consider renting to you if you’ve been evicted. None of them get money for housing from the government. The waiting list is too long and one of the little known facts Desmond reveals is that 3 out of 4 families who are eligible for housing assistance get absolutely nothing. So all of them are forced to spend between 50 and 80% of their meager income on rent, leaving almost nothing leftover for things like utilities, food, and clothes. With no savings, low wages, and expensive housing, eviction is inevitable.
Now, the landlord side. Desmond also shadowed two landlords over the course of a year. The first landlord he shadows is Sherenna Tarver, a black woman. She’s smart and buys up property on the North Side of Milwaukee, the black side of Milwaukee, and this is property many white investors are afraid of. Because of the lack of competition and the 2008 housing crash, she gets great prices and parlays profits from one property into another until she amasses quite a portfolio of multiple buildings. But Sherenna can also be exploitative. She doesn’t fix things unless she absolutely has to, often blaming the tenants for things being broken. And she takes advantage of government programs to maximize the amount of rent she gets. For instance, she can charge a tenant with a housing voucher $775 for an apartment she would only charge $675 for otherwise. Why? Because the government will pay it no questions asked. Sometimes she tries to help her tenants out. She buys them groceries as a move-in gift, she lets them do work in exchange for reducing their back rent owed, she overlooks too many people living in a unit because she knows they don’t have anywhere else to go… but all of this is to a point. When a tenant falls far enough behind, she takes those things she overlooked before and uses them as ammunition in court for eviction.
The other landlord he followed was Tobin Charney. Tobin owns a trailer park and makes a 6-figure profit from about 130 trailers each year. But his trailer park is about to be shut down because it’s deemed a nuisance by the city. It’s a hotbed for crime and drugs, and the trailer’s themselves are in terrible condition. But the tenants don’t care. They don’t want the park to be shut down because where would they go? Their only option for similarly priced housing is the North Side where the blacks live and many of them feel that moving over there is the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen to them. Yes- racism is still thriving in modern America.
Now, they’re also afraid of new management. The best thing about Tobin is that he can be negotiated with. He’ll give you time to catch up. He’ll let you work off the rent through odd jobs. New management won’t be so flexible. But Tobin is also exploitative. That negotiation style of his they like so much - it’s not evenly applied. Men tend to benefit from it more than women. Sometimes he forgets he made a deal with you and evicts you anyway. Sometime he just doesn’t like you and If he evicts you and you move in with your friend in the trailer next door, he’ll evict them too just to get rid of you.
But Desmond is evenhanded in his portrayal of the Landlords and they are not the villains. It’s obvious that both Sherrena and Tobin are smart, hardworking people who spend a lot of time each day actively managing their property. They are both making fantastic profits off of providing housing to low-income people because… why not? We - the american people - have supported the maximization of profits no matter what the collateral damage is. So we can’t demonize them. They’re just winners in the game we set up. And they’re not the only players in the game. City zoning laws and federal funding (or lack of funding) for housing programs also play a significant role. And If we don’t like the way things are going, WE have to change the rules.
FAVORITE STORY MOMENT
Now, this is when I usually talk about my favorite story moment - a snapshot of the book that I liked the best. But for this book, I’m going to share a moment that was the most illuminating for me - the moment that really opened my eyes to something I didn’t know about our nation’s housing market.
First, let me share that I am a landlord. My family has owned and managed a 4-unit apartment building for almost 10 years. I’m a licensed real estate agent and my first job out of college was as an assistant to a real estate developer in D.C. So I know a lot about real estate.
And I was shocked, dumbfounded, astonished… what’s another word? Thunderstruck. I like that one.
I was thunderstruck while reading this book and seeing how many instances of housing discrimination were faced by the people Desmond followed. Both the black people and the white people were discriminated against for various reasons. But the most common reason was the fact that they had kids.
Pam, her boyfriend, and her 5 daughters were evicted from the trailer park when Pam was 8 months pregnant. She splits up the family and sends a few kids to stay with her sister while she and her boyfriend sleep on a friend’s couch as they spend weeks frantically searching for housing. In call after call after call she keeps meeting resistance when she tells the Landlord how many kids she has. She tries lying and saying she only has 3 kids - still no dice. Pam ends up giving birth homeless.
Arleen is another woman who faced this issue repeatedly with the added burden of her facing racism because she’s black. She was talking to her 85th call - she’d been turned away from 84 apartments so far - and the person asked her if a man would be living with her. When she said no, they kept pressing and asked if men would be coming over. When she said no they asked her if she had kids. She only told them about 1 of her sons. But when they asked his age - he’s six - again, no dice. Nothing. She has to move on.
The 86th call, the one after this, wanted to charge her an extra $25 per month for her son. There is a thing called pet-rent where you charge extra per month for each pet. But kids aren’t animals - a luxury item we keep for companionship. They’re human beings essential to the survival of our species.
Plus - isn’t this kind of discrimination illegal? How are these landlords getting away with this? The Fair Housing act outlawed discrimination based on familial status in 1988. They can’t do this! Why are they doing this? This what I’m saying in my head as I’m reading this book.
But then I remembered my Fair Housing training from real estate class. There are exemptions to the fair housing laws.
You’re exempt from the fair housing act if the building is 4 units or less and the owners lives in the building OR it’s a single family home and the owner owns no more than 3 of them.
So how many housing units fall under this exemption? I couldn’t get an exact figure, but I bet it’s a lot. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 Rental Housing Finance Survey 75% of all single family rental properties are owned by an individual investor - a private owner. And 77% of all 2 to 4 unit rentals are owned by a person, not a company.
This is significant. The exemption covers owners of 3 or less single families and buildings of 4 or less units. If 75-77% of all rental units of that type is owned by an individual investor, that means a large portion of rental housing isn’t protected by fair housing laws. That means a couple renting out their old 2 bedroom starter home because they’ve outgrown it, can legally say no to families with kids. That means the guy who owns a duplex and lives on one side and rents out the other side can legally say no to families with kids.
Zoning laws even play a role in exemptions. If you’re renting a 1 bedroom apartment, you can turn away a single mother with 3 kids by saying that city zoning laws say this apartment has a maximum occupancy limit of 2 people… which puts that mom in a no-win situation if they can’t afford the average 2 bedroom apartment on the market.
Not only has housing become prohibitively expensive for many Americans, but we have these gaps in fair housing protections that make finding and keeping housing a stressful and frustrating experience for low income people. Some of them are even forced to split up their families just to get housing within their budget.
If you’re spending all your time looking for housing, or all your time trying to make ends meet when you have to spend 80% of your income on housing - guess what: you don’t have time left over to help your kid with their homework or take some classes yourself to get a better job. You’re too worried about avoiding eviction or where you’re going to sleep at night once you’ve been evicted. You’re trapped in a cycle of poverty. You can’t expend the energy required to work your way out of poverty because you’re spending all of your energy just trying to keep a roof over your head and hoping you’ll have enough after you pay the Landlord to put some food in your belly. You’re just stuck.
And that’s not fair. Our approach to housing in this country is contrary to our national ethos and the values we proudly trumpet. We tell ourselves we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But when we don’t even have the right to an affordable place to call home… you start to wonder if that’s all it is - something we just tell ourselves.
Fortunately, Desmond offers us some smart solutions to help us live up to our grand ideals, the most transformative of which would be automatic, universal housing assistance for everyone below a certain income level. In other words, if I qualify based on my income, I never have to pay more than 30% of my income on rent. The government will pay the balance. And I can take this voucher ANYWHERE and all landlords are REQUIRED to accept it (currently, you don’t have to accept renters with vouchers if you don’t want to, which contributes to housing segregation - forcing people with vouchers to live in a small area - Desmond’s solution would help fix this).
Armed with the treasure trove of data he collected through the wonder of sociological research, he makes a convincing case for this idea and for the fact that we might already have the money for this. It may not cost us anymore than we’re already spending.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City will take the average reader about 6.5 hours to read. That means if you read for at least 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish this book in about 13 days, which is less than 2 weeks.
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That’s all for this episode. Thank you for listening. But mostly, thank you for reading. Because of you, we’re one book closer to a better world.